One Two Click on Farecast, Google: A Perspective

27 09 2006

I’ve spent some time lately starting to book holiday travel. The time spent highlighted the frustrations around travel booking and trying to find the best deal.

Here’s how it generally goes: you start out looking for airfare. Usually because I’m not that great of a planner and pretty frugal, the fares aren’t generally low enough. You go to the old stand-by sites: Expedia and direct sites (Southwest, AlaskaAir, JetBlue are my main ones), but Kayak has a new seat among my favorites. Even among these, you still don’t find exactly what you want. You spend some time looking around (sometimes it’s 15 min., sometimes it’s hours), then either give us for later or settle, basically deciding that the time to whittle $15-$50 off the airfare is no longer worth the time spent researching fares.

Along comes Farecast, a predictive technology for airfares that was started by UW Professor Oren Etzioni, whom I took my undergrad AI course from. On the bottom right hand corner of Farecast, an airfare prediction site, is one of the coolest features I’ve seen EVER on a travel site. Enter your city and it generates a quick map across the U.S. with all of the lowest fares within the next 30 days. A cursory glance shows a $240 round-trip fare from San Diego to Honolulu this Friday to Tuesday – something I’d gladly take up when the time was right.

This particular feature doesn’t use all of the cool predictive technology that has mined through past airfare history to apply pattern recognition and other predictive technologies to show you whether you should buy now or wait. No – this feature only queries future fares, then quicky applies a neat UI on top of the data. It combs through data, but there’s no technological stretch here.

This is a perfect example of one two click. A lot has been said recently about simplification, the overabundance of features and specialized tools. Largely, a lot of this is hype, but much of it is rooted in reality – as tools and noise get more and more abundant, the only way you get noticed is through the sheer impressiveness of one two click. It’s a wealth of information from the smallest possible input.

Google’s ultimate success is in one two click. Everyone knows that. What’s number two success? Probably Google News. What’s it’s second easiest to digest service?

Recently, on a podcast with Michael Arrington, Robert Scoble and Om Malik, it was highlighted that the explosion of start ups has made it more difficult to filter through the noise. It might be harder to gain adoption and reviewers typically have no more than cursory glances to make snap judgments about start up services.

For this reason, I think that most future success will master one two click. Lots of information for a little work.

This might be an oversimplification, but it has additional implications. For example, don’t make users bite off more than they can chew. You could argue that MySpace, Facebook and data-rich services do just that. Make the steps incremental, such as one page to see what a broad summary of a person, band or organization. One step to sign up. One step to add a friend. Pretty soon those pieces add up. As I’ve mentioned previously, I believe that social networking could get easier, but these are the reasons why I don’t believe MySpace and their ilk are necessarily a counter-example.

Forbes has a recent article about mashups and their importance to Google. Not to take anything away from the true usefulness of mashups (such as the original famed HousingMaps example), but some of the criticism that surfaced over this article is deserved. Mashups are not the be-all and end-all. The ultimate reason is that these are just features – if there’s no meat behind the pretty interface then it’s either trivially useful or easily replicable if it’s not trivially useful.

Synthesizers, such as Ajax home pages like Netvibes and other personalized home pages, will have a place in the “mashup” of these simplified features. Someday, I’d love to put this Farecast widget on my customized interface when it gets to be marginally easy enough. This is another more easily mimickable space as is already happening, while I still understand and acknowledge the usefulness.

Back to my favorite little Farecast feature. It’s probably replicable (why haven’t I seen this before is my only other question), but just as Google continues to innovate on their search – Farecast has the tools in place to innovate on this and other one two click features. Overall, I think it’s a recipe for success.

Any thoughts? Other great one two click examples?


MySpace: A New Addiction

26 09 2006

On Friday, I finally “caved” and signed up for a MySpace page. You can view my profile here.

I fit pretty well into the MySpace demographic, although I split my time between the MySpace and geek worlds. Usually I live in the MySpace world for socializing/downtime and live in the geek world to get things done (work, learning, planning anything, etc.).

No huge surprises (it’s mostly obvious), but some broad observations so far have become clearer:

  • Thus far, most of my communication has been from friends I might have just spoken to within the past week. Thus, my experience has been that MySpace has been less about connecting with past friends and more about being another form of communication (see later item).
  • You can’t run and you can’t hide. What’s always bothered me slightly about MySpace is that is means the death of personal space. Even if you don’t post pictures or personal comments that personally reference you, someone else is probably doing so. At this point, I think you’re just better off embracing it – at least you get to craft your profile closer as you see fit.
  • Social norms translate oddly into the MySpace world. It’s easier to reach out to new friends online, but at least for me, that’s not the motivation. I will likely (at least for the time being) only reach out to people I know in the real world or at least have some other connection, so I would still stop those people on the street and have a conversation with them. So, oddly, the social protocol and rules of possible past or current conflicts still have some application.
  • It feels like a waste of time. I’ve always known this and it’s honestly the primary reason why I’m the 100 millionth-plus user. Again, maybe this is just a personal preference. I’ve never really loved IM/chat for this reason (although when it’s business-related, it has its uses, but even then chats can go off on tangents).
  • More, more, more! Every action on MySpace seems to generate an e-mail: friend requests, comments, messages, picture comments and probably more. It seems MySpace is single-handily contributing to the clutter problem in e-mail and mindshare in general.
  • MySpace as a communication tool . One thing that stood out is the annoyance factor of the additional communication medium that seems to add no value (another of my complaints with IM) – the MySpace messaging function. It serves some purpose for someone that doesn’t have my e-mail, IM handle or phone number, but I don’t necessarily hide these pieces particularly carefully.
  • Social rules. There are new issues like “MySpace stalkers”, the ongoing child molestation problems and such. With IM, text messaging, MySpacing, cell phones, etc., what’s the social etiquette? There’s odd rules and uses for each medium in the younger generation. What a weird digital world!

It appears to me that MySpace is the real deal, especially for young people establishing their identity in the world.

So for now, it seems that MySpace will always have a lock on this market. If you’ve got a lot of extra time to spare (as the young generation does – that time is just siphoned off of other recreational activities), this doesn’t so much matter.

However, as the MySpace generation grows up, it’s for the above reasons that I think it would beneficial if we saw an evolution in social networking. My dream is something that doesn’t duplicate communication method, doesn’t seem to waste my time and isn’t much extra work, but achieves the broader goals of MySpace, Facebook and such – connecting you with others quickly and efficiently.

These may be terribly obvious observations, but I think they have some application when bridging the MySpace crowd and geek crowd.

The State of Online (and Offline) Rentals

20 09 2006

Coming to San Diego next week is DemoFall, a great launch and demonstration platform for emerging technologies. If you will be in the San Diego area and are an entrepreneur, investor or technologist, I’d love to meet up with you and discuss anything. Contact me from my About Me page.

As a prelude to DemoFall, I’d like to cover the State of Online (and Offline) Rentals – I’ll cover only DVDs here for brevity. It’s a subject near and dear to my new startup iLetYou because it’s something we’re aiming to change for the better…

Big Rent By Mail

NetFlix and Blockbuster are the clear dominating companies in this space; NetFlix even more so than Blockbuster. NetFlix expects as many as 20 million subscribers by 2012, up from 5.5 million in 2005. Several stock analysts have recently been reiterating NetFlix as a ‘buy’ rating. Clearly, a lot of people believe this market won’t be going anywhere for a while.

The biggest complaint is throttling, but this is just a reality of business. NetFlix loses money on the power renters and they’ve devised a way to somewhat combat that. The methods used may be subject to debate, but not the overall motivation for throttling’s occurence.

I’m personally a big fan of these models. The ‘all you can eat’ approach to movie viewing has clearly struck a cord with the consumer, along with the overall service, fast delivery and sheer inventory of NetFlix.

Small Rent By Mail

In this environment, it is difficult for smaller competitors to compete, so you see fewer outfits than you would originally expect. GreenCine is a good example of a competitor who have done well for themselves – filling a proper niche does work.

The big guys are entrenched with significant reach, technology and fulfillment resources and marketing budgets. It does beg the question: who’s helping the mom-and-pops succeed? Is there not a better way for a targeted niche store (either genre-based or location-based) to succeed?

The Video Store

Unfortunately, the video store is suffering in the well-documented clash with rent by mail outfits. Some of it is well-deserved. The big chains BlockBuster and Movie Gallery provide a convenience factor that is showing itself to be only of marginal value to the consumer. If you don’t provide the value-add for the added cost of all that physical space and take advantage of more efficient delivery models, you’re going to find it tough going. However, I still believe in the mom-and-pop store, especially to serve the personal and quirky tastes of movie viewing.

There has to be a way to let the video stores that want to fill their niche (again either genre-based or location-based) do so as well.

Digital downloads

As has been covered multiple times (Washington Post has a particularly negative view of the experience), announcements by, Apple and Wal-Mart (details pending) are being heralded as the replacement mode of movie viewing. In a nutshell, this hasn’t come to fruition – the experience is inconvenient (long, unreliable downloads), expensive (sometimes more than a DVD), less rich (less than DVD quality, no special features) and not portable (DRM restrictions and no DVD burning).

Apple announched over 125,000 downloads in the first week after announcing iTunes movie downloads, impressive given the availability of 75 Disney-only titles. Another widespread criticism is that titles are only available to buy, completely omitting rental options. It’s a consensus that rentals and one-time viewing are here to stay and this seems like a mistake.

No one disagrees that this is the future, but as of right now, it looks like the studios don’t want this to happen quite yet, Wal-mart certainly doesn’t and the consumer won’t come on board until the entire process becomes easier and moves completely to the living room.

My new startup iLetYou is coming soon. If you’d like to see how we’ll fit into this picture, please sign up for a Beta invitation.

Ugly Stench of Rejection

18 09 2006

Another fun-filled weekend, but there were some interesting thoughts passed around that I even said at the time would be great for a blog post!

A friend mentioned that he had gotten to the point where rejection felt good, even urging me to “breathe it in” (maybe a paraphrase). At the time, I thought that was a little masochistic, nonetheless the point was obvious: once you’re past the rejection, you’ll get to the acceptance and success much sooner.

Rejection does not feel good, so you’ve got to be insane to take the rejected feeling to be a good one. My counter point at the time was that I don’t mind rejection, but I definitely don’t “like” being rejected. This slight difference in thinking could also just be a simple, slight difference in world views.

In business and in life, rejection is part of the process, so while it’s often necessary and healthy to be rejected and often – I think that unerring bravado is equally important. You’ve got to hate to lose. You’re at the top of your game when you never lose, not when you like rejection. It pushes you to be better. The natural counter-point is that this is ultra-idealistic because you will occassionally be rejected and you will occassionally lose, but hey – the ideal is the high-and-mighty goal we’re talking about here. Even Michael Jordan did learn that baseball’s not quite that easy.

So moving on to yesterday, I wandered into a random variety store with a different friend. It was an older woman with less than polished English skills, selling the most random assortment of goodies. I probably should have taken a quick camera picture, but in a nutshell, there was a HUGE sign saying “Cash for Cell Phones (up to $200)”. My friend walked in with his Treo 650 and for around 5-10 minutes, the lady proceeded to look at the Treo 650 (one of the more expensive cell phones available today, even after multiple models have succeeded it) in amazement like it was a remote control to a spaceship, look at a random notebook of papers and call random people.

It became very clear that she was not going to be able to sustain her location in the square right adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and Beach. Sometimes I wonder how places like this even continue to exist even in less desirable locations.

There’s are thousands upon thousands of examples like this. Without going into the obvious details of why, it was just another example of businesses started because they can. In business, people seem to like to flash the 80% or so failure rate of small businesses as some sort of argument to take stupid risks. It’s a cop-out, effectively. While you have to stay positive to stay sane, people take the boldness too far. It’s commendable to take risks, but it’s the smart risktakers that ultimatley win out.

There is a distinction between rejection and failure. Rejection is temporary; failure by definition is more permanent – a failed business, a failed marriage, etc.

I hate to lose, both rejection and failure (obviously failure exponentially more than rejection). I don’t care what anyone else says. But with anything, it’s a balancing act – you’ve to love it and hate it at the same time I think. Any thoughts?

It’s a long tail world after all

15 09 2006

I just ran past an article “All retail markets not equal” that highlights some broad points that may affect the evolution and usage of iLetYou and the importance of these smaller markets. To a small extent, there’s a long tail of cities, markets and micro-markets.

It’s just a healthy reminder that small may be the new big even in cities, physical communities and markets. When you live in Manhattan or California and the media is dominated by Hollywood influences and urban culture, you can sometimes forget where the real action is. And anything that connects these small markets together that otherwise couldn’t get together as easily, that’s when the real power of the Internet and connected communities becomes great.

A Jessica Rose by any other name – Tonight Show appearance

15 09 2006

Once again, there’s been no lack of media love for the lonelygirl15 story. It was recently revealed that Bree, the webcam star of the YouTube phenomenon, was really Jessica Rose, a 19-year-old actress from New Zealand. Mashable also reported yesterday that Jessica would appear on The Tonight Show.

Right before going to sleep, I caught Jessica on The Tonight Show last night. Following the monologue, she introduced herself to Jay Leno and revealed that she was not Bree (16 years old and homeschooled), but rather Jessica Rose (19 years old and from New Zealand). She didn’t seem overly comfortable, going to commercial doing an odd little dance with someone I couldn’t quite recognize. Anyone see the rest of the Tonight Show?

Despite its ridiculousness, this is a pretty fun story. And I’m not sure it could have worked any other way: the filmmakers made their own world that seemed to appeal to the YouTube voyeur, not to mention that Bree/Jessica is adorable, whether any particular audience member is genuinely interested or creepily interested. When it broke that it was fake, backlash could have occurred, but the story looks to be clean – who can blame LA transplants for wanting to get ahead in the tough Hollywood world?

Although it’s nothing new, it’ll be interesting whether it was the mystery or the sheer entertainment that kept audiences interested. The cat is out of the bag, so this is the first case study of the consumer-generated generation – do I have to fake it to make it big? Is there a mystery factor that is necessary? There’s no doubt that suspension of disbelief is necessary when the actors or actresses have public personas, but consumer generated content might be playing by different rules. One thing that’s cool in this new world is that fun is fun, no matter where it comes from.

No doubt that the filmmakers will be able to ride this media wave a bit longer before moving on to bigger and better things.

Will this type of independent content make it to communities like iLetYou?

Apple’s Real Announcement

13 09 2006

Apple’s announcements yesterday were largely non-starters, doing what smart consumer companies do – prepare the market and media for the holiday season with lower prices, even more bang for the buck and more choices for the mainstream consumer market. There’s plenty of media coverage on the announcements, but the only other news of note was regarding movie downloads. Om Malik has one of the better thought pieces comparing Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, tagging Steve Jobs to possibly be Bill Gates 2.0. With only 75 movies available immediately and the same DRM as iTunes music downloads, I’m not sure there’s much to report on movie downloads either. Like I’ve said before, it might be a mover in the future, but it’s not a huge announcement and certainly one that was expected.The real announcement came with the purported iTV, which is only a temporary name. But I think the real breakthrough that will come through next year is that this new box, expected before April 2007, will not really be just about television, but about total convergence. As such, I would expect that the new box will have a more universal name – maybe iHome?

With WiFi and AirPort Express, there’s a lot of cool things happening tying the home together. You’ll see home automation become easier. With Slingboxes, Windows Media Centers, XBox 360, Playstation 3, Apple HiFi (speaker systems) and on and on, there are lots of devices with total convergence potential, but largely unfulfilled. Slingbox hasn’t taken off and XBox/Playstation/Windows aren’t terribly popular as primary media centers.

Apple has hinted that the price of the new device will be around $299, similar to iPod pricing. That’s a mainstream price, but probably won’t pack enough juice to be a central device. No, instead I believe that Apple’s next big will be tying the home together. Just like middle class families have multiple iPods, maybe one for each child and parent or more, it’s much more reasonable to think about total connectivity and convergence in bite-sized pieces.

Just as has happened in the past, prices will likely fall and the market will grow larger. Apple is THE company to get this right and then dominate it – imagine streaming your music, photos, video and other media anywhere in your house you want.

But that’s enough for now – these are just thoughts. Let’s see if I’m right next year.